Grief in the Covid era

Physical distancing being entirely incongruent with social touch has made grief far more complicated

By Author Dr Deepa Bapat   |   Published: 5th Nov 2020   12:14 am

Individuals can have a grief reaction to any loss – loss of a relationship (ie a breakup), a financial loss (losing money on the stock market), loss of a material good (losing a pair of shoes you really wanted), and, of course, the loss with the most sense of finality – the death of a loved one.

Being social animals, it is not surprising that many cultures in the world see grief as a communal process, particularly in the context of death. In many Indian communities, part of this communal process entails people close to the departed paying their last respects before the funeral. Being with other people helps us feel less isolated in trying times.

Therapeutic Benefits

There is of course the therapeutic benefits of social touch to consider as well. A hug, a squeeze of the hand, a pat on the back – all of these things matter.

Emotional contagion or the spread of emotions also serves an important purpose in this context. It is important that a person has the opportunity to express grief, and emotional contagion allows for precisely that. As one person breaks into tears, the contagion eventually spreads across the entire room with everyone either sniffling, wiping their tears or bawling like a child.

Apart from all the other complications arising from the Covid pandemic, it has also served to make grief a far more complicated process. With social distancing being the new mantra, there are limitations on the number of people who can attend the last rites of an individual.

Moreover, physical distancing is entirely incongruent with the notion of social touch. What could have been made better by a hug, or a pat on the back, must now be replaced by a video call or a text message. Words often belie us in situations like these. What is the right thing to say? Is there anything I can say?

For fear of sounding silly, or worsening the bereaver’s misery, people are often inclined to not say anything at all. In a pre-Covid era, this was not too much of a problem. If you showed up, you were saying all that needed to be said. In a Covid stricken world however, words left unsaid may leave a person feeling more isolated than ever.

Grief for Bereaved

So what are the bereaved to do given the limited options at their disposal? Picking up the phone to try and speak to someone can be difficult and the absence of your support network around you is likely to be felt. Guilt may be an emotion at the forefront of your experience — for all those things you wanted to do, but were unable to; for all that time you wished you had spent with the person.

But that is the trick with retrospect — it often taints our view of what truly is. It is important to remind yourself that the world has been dealing with unprecedented circumstances and as such, many people’s hands have been tied by circumstances, rather than motivation.

It can often be helpful to talk to someone about what you are experiencing. If reaching out over a phone call seems daunting, try texting. “Not doing too well”, “wish you were here” could be ways to start a conversation around your experience. Mental health professionals have been working hard to offer online consultations and that could be another avenue of support to consider. Some people find keeping a journal useful; others may find it helpful to scrapbook — a legacy book of sorts, which you can use to cherish the departed.

Practising gratitude can also be helpful — you can always be grateful for knowing the departed and for having the opportunity to spend whatever time possible with them. Importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. Grief has a way of turning you against yourself, but you are not the enemy here. It is just a very unfortunate event to have occurred in the context of a world that nobody could have prepared for.

Supporting Bereaved

What can the rest of us do in a situation like this? How can we best support the bereaved? Sadly, there are never any magic words to be said, but what needs to be communicated in some way is that you are there for them. “You are in our thoughts”, “thinking of you”, “sorry for your loss”, “please let me know how I can help” – however empty they may seem to you, they convey the idea that you care, and are available for them whenever they are ready.

Try and check in with the person at regular intervals. A quick telephonic check-in could be sufficient. Has the person eaten? Have they been sleeping alright? As time goes on, talk to them about topics other than their loved one. It is easy to dismiss these gestures as silly. But it is just as easily possible that the 10 minutes you spend conversing with them is the only time they really get a reprieve; where they allow themselves to think of something different for a change.

Kindness will always be free. There has never been a better time to remind ourselves of this. It is important not to let the fear of contagion win over helping a fellow human in need. It is easy enough to knock on someone’s door while wearing a mask, as it is to offer assistance with material demands such as grocery shopping or purchasing medicines.

Let’s make sure that we are empathising with people in their time of need. Sure, the mental health professionals are gearing up to deal with an increase in cases of complicated grief. But we must not forget that each one of us also has a role to play. Let’s make sure that kindness and compassion prevail, not irrational fear, ignorance and neglect. Let’s remind ourselves of what it means to be human.

(The author is Adjunct Faculty. FLAME University, Pune. Views are personal)

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